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Obama finds Facebook headquarters a friendly place

The president holds a town hall meeting at the social-networking firm's Palo Alto campus to stump for his deficit-reduction plan. His biggest achievement was getting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to wear a coat and tie.

April 21, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • "My name is Barack Obama, and Im the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie," the president said during a town hall meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is known for his casual attire.
"My name is Barack Obama, and Im the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket… (Jim Young, Reuters )

Reporting from Palo Alto, Calif. — It was the town hall meeting that was the talk of the town.

President Obama held a one-hour live Internet chat from the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook Inc. on Wednesday to stump for his plan to reduce the deficit.

While it's too soon to tell whether his deficit-reduction plan will succeed, Obama's presence gave an immediate status boost to Facebook, which has risen from tiny start-up to potential market value of more than $50 billion in seven years.

"It is significant as it is a reminder that Obama is our first cybergenic president in the same way Kennedy was our first telegenic president," said Paul Saffo, Silicon Valley futurist and managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics.

Some 500 employees who won admission in a company lottery crowded a vast warehouse on Facebook's campus along with 200 guests. Politicians rubbed elbows with technology kingpins including Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman and angel investor Ron Conway. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) posed for photographs with admirers before the town hall meeting began.

Shortly before 2 p.m., Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg emerged from blue curtains in front of a giant Facebook sign, with both wearing coat and tie but Zuckerberg in blue jeans, to a standing ovation.

"My name is Barack Obama, and I'm the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie," Obama said to applause. "Thank you. I am very proud of that."

Zuckerberg noted that it was the second time Obama persuaded him to wear a tie. In February, Zuckerberg donned formal attire for a private dinner hosted by venture capitalist John Doerr at his Woodside, Calif., home.

In a "when in Rome" moment Wednesday, Obama suggested he and Zuckerberg remove their jackets before taking their seats on stools to field questions. Zuckerberg moderated the meeting.

Obama said he chose to hold the town hall meeting at Facebook because it has transformed how people get information and connect with one another.

"What Facebook allows us to do is make sure that this is not just a one-way conversation. Not only am I speaking to you, you are also speaking back," Obama said. "I love town hall meetings. This format and this company is an ideal means for us to carry on this conversation."

Obama advocated resolving the partisan budget dispute in Washington with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy, including Zuckerberg.

"I know you are OK with that," Obama said to the 26-year-old billionaire.

Obama also hit on some of Silicon Valley's hot-button political issues. For example, he pledged support for granting visas to highly skilled immigrants trained in U.S. universities.

"Those are job creators," Obama said. "We want more Andy Groves here in the United States. We don't want them starting Intels in China or in France. We want them to start them here."

Facebook for years has been a friendly platform for Obama, who tapped the social networking site to gain support for his campaign and now for his policies. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes left Facebook early in the company's history to help run Obama's Internet campaign.

Obama has frequently used YouTube to reach out to voters. But Obama's appearance at the town hall meeting elevated the profile of Facebook's live streaming video channel, which has grown into one of the Web's largest.

Obama's visit comes at a sensitive time for Facebook, which is under intensifying scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators on online privacy and is exploring entering the China market. Facebook, which has a small but growing lobbying operation in Washington, has been ramping up spending and hiring there.

To close out the event, Zuckerberg gave the president a Facebook hoodie similar to his own "in case you want to dress like me."

"This is a high-fashion statement right here," Obama said.

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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